I recently reread Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights for the first time in about 15 years. In fact, I devoured it in only 36 hours, and was so struck by it this time around that I am writing a little review here.
My own history with the book: I read it in high school, for English class, and was knocked over by it then too. I quickly started putting it at the top of my “favorite books” list, despite having only read it once, and having not read it since then. I wondered recently, did I love it so much because it was literally (sadly) the only book I had to read for school that I’ve ever liked? Was it something about being 15 and the book being so over-the-top with crazy drama? Or is it actually really that good? I was hoping it was the last, but this wouldn’t be the first time I’ve revisited a loved thing from my childhood or teen years and had all of my good memories ruined by its reality.
As you can see, this was not the case. In fact, I liked it more this time around. So I can happily say, now, that it is one of the best books I have ever read, with no reservations.
First, the most amorphous: This has to be one of the most well-written works I have ever come across. It’s not every day that a book forces me to stay up half the night reading it, despite almost falling asleep on my Kindle (I’m reading the Project Gutenberg copy – go Gutenberg!). Throughout, I was practically shouting at the page, “Nelly Dean, don’t go to bed! Get back here and finish telling us what happened!” But it’s more than simply keeping a fast and absorbing pace. Emily Brone’s writing style is powerful and unique; I don’t think I’ve read anything quite like it before or since. Sadly, I can’t put more of a finger on it than that at the moment. I’m still fighting my urge to reread it immediately, after all.
But I want to spend the remainder of my short review on what I value so much about this book and its narration, and why.
I was looking around for information on the reception (because I’m a book history nerd) after I had finished, and I was really, truly astounded to find this book referred to as a romance and a love story everywhere I looked. Heathcliff himself was being referred to as a romantic hero! I nearly fell off my chair when I ran across that one, but then I kept seeing it again and again. Did these people read the same book that I did?
I’m going to go ahead and make a statement that I don’t think will be terribly controversial to anyone else who has read this novel: This is not a love story. It contains one, but it is not primarily about the love story. This is a book that has one foot firmly in the horror genre, and at times borders on terrifying if the reader has any sense of humanity. It is about unspeakable evil, here personified in the not-exactly-“romantic” main character, who I would also refrain from calling a “hero” in any sense, except perhaps “hero of unnecessary revenge through evil means.”
This is, for me, a tale of abuse and its results; of real, almost unimaginable evil; of madness (and in a sense, the madness that results from the characters and from the environment and experiences that they face); and of a borderline-horrifying environment in which the characters are so isolated that the rest of the world may as well not exist.
Now I’m going to make a much more controversial statement: Emily Bronte was Lovecraftian before H.P. Lovecraft was born.
No, she may not have a Cthulhu lurking among the heather on the moors, but she has the same type of setting as Lovecraft’s freakish isolated New England villages and awful countryside, and if she’s not talking about evil as manifested through fungus and occasionally monsters and aliens, she’s talking about the same kind of incomprehensible evil as personified through our favorite Heathcliff. If you pushed me, I’d rank Cathy Earnshaw just below him on the evil scale. And if you want some more Lovecraft precursor: The theme of madness in Wuthering Heights is overpowering. I’m not one to ascribe bipolar disorder with psychotic episodes (what I’m sure I’m seeing in Cathy, though I am not a doctor) to seeing the face of evil in person, but it’s undeniable that it’s a major presence in the novel – something more than a theme – and goes beyond a simple character attribute.
It is Bronte’s frequent attempted descriptions of Heathcliff – and failed descriptions, for the most part – that make me recall Lovecraft so closely. Obviously, we have a link in their racism and linking of “brown” characters to base evil. I’m being overly general, but bear with me, because if you pay attention you will find it throughout the entire novel, not just in the main characters. More than this, though, is that I truly struggled to envision Heathcliff – especially his face – while reading, despite paying close attention to every word that conveyed any physical characteristic. It’s as though the characters often had to stop at simply concluding that he is the devil or a demon incarnate, describing the terror-inducing emotion they see on his face (the eyes!) rather than his basic appearance. There are attempts but they are repetition of the same few facts over and over.
Lovecraft can point to unspeakable evil, but it is just that: it is indescribable, beyond words. Heathcliff, as a person, appears to be in the same category.
As a final note on my categorization of this book in the horror genre, and close enough to Lovecraft to be in the same corner within that genre, I want to remark that having been to Yorkshire, and having been to the moors – they are terrifying enough on their own. They’re a landscape as bizarre and vaguely horrifying to be eligible for most of Lovecraft’s work to have been set there rather than in New England, although I understand the point of setting a story where New World villages can have been simultaneously without history from newness, and forgotten already. This is what, in my opinion, really sets apart the United States in particular as a setting quite different from any European country. But in these isolated, threatening places, I can imagine the same kinds of stories taking place without too much strain on my part.
This review isn’t as coherent as I’d like it to be, but I’d love to hear what my readers think about my shifting focus here from the “love story” of the novel (which really doesn’t take up a whole lot of space, and in light of the second half of the book, isn’t the overall point) and toward the idea of unspeakable evil personified – and having taken up residence in an isolated, abusive home in a bizarre landscape and threatening world. Not quite the evaluation I’ve been coming across in my online reading, but I can’t be the first person to praise the novel for these points.